Quick Thoughts: Nazan Üstündağ on the Protests at Turkey’s Boğaziçi University

Nazan Üstündağ, 11 Feb 2021

[Academics and students at Boğaziçi University responded with protest when President Erdoğan appointed Melih Bulu as the new rectorate. The protests of students were repressed violently and 11 students have been imprisoned. Still, since the 2016 coup attempt, this has been the largest and most influential popular protest in Turkey with gaining support from other universities, student bodies, and oppositional groups. We interviewed Nazan Üstündağ, a former member of the academic staff of Boğaziçi University, to gain a better understanding of the meaning of these protests and their popularity.]


Jadaliyya (J): How did Boğaziçi University become a center of resistance to authoritarianism in Turkey?

Nazan Üstündağ (NÜ): The growing popular dissatisfaction with increased state authoritarianism in Turkey is well known. One dimension of this authoritarianism has manifested itself in the field of higher education, with hundreds of academics being fired by executive decree in 2016-17. Additionally, a new 2018 law gave President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan the power to appoint university rectors. Before it was passed, Boğaziçi University (BU) in 2016 held an election for the rector, which was won overwhelmingly by Professor Gülay Barbarosoğlu.  Nevertheless, Erdoğan made clear that this result would not be accepted by the state, and instead appointed Professor Mehmed Özkan. This happened during a difficult period; it was the aftermath of the 2016 coup attempt, the country was still under emergency rule, and many faculty were being purged. On the basis of assurances from Özkan that no investigations would be opened against faculty members, and with the support of the elected rector Barbarosoğlu and her team, a majority of BU faculty decided to cooperate with the appointed rector. At this stage I took leave and eventually resigned from my position, so cannot really comment on how things evolved at BU during the last four years.

What has happened now is that President Erdoğan has replaced Rector Özkan without consulting BU faculty. The BU faculty had shown that they were willing to make concessions in order for the institution to continue working and avoid a crisis. They were willing to give up their right to elect the university rector. But by appointing Melih Bulu, Erdoğan effectively declared war against BU. Bulu has no significant academic credentials, and no relationship to BU. He has been accused of plagiarism, and defended himself on the basis that at the time he wrote the work in question quotation marks were not yet in use. The Bulu appointment was thus an open expression of contempt by Erdoğan and an orchestrated challenge to BU and its values. I think that is what mobilized everyone against the decision

Boğaziçi University has a history that dates back to the pre-republican era. It is not easy in Turkey where institutions are re-made by every political transformation. Most universities in Turkey are vulnerable to such changes. There are only a few universities that can persist institutionally and academically without the aid and patronage of government or capital. Boğaziçi is one of them. It survived the faculty purge, losing only two of its members, Abbas Vali and Noemi Levy, neither of whom are citizens of Turkey and had to leave because the Institute of Higher Education refused a request by BU to renew their contracts.

BU has a considerable number of academics with oppositional worldviews, a campus where encounters between students from different social backgrounds can be conducted, and it is located in a working-class neighborhood. All of this has made it a space where unconventional ideas, organizations, identities, and politics can develop and be sustained. It is a space conducive to experiment, radicalization, and pluralism. I think all these factors played into its emergence as a place of resistance. In this particular case dissatisfaction with authoritarianism, the president’s complete disregard and undermining of the university, and BU’s own trajectory all intersected.

J: How would you characterize the resistance we have witnessed at Boğaziçi University during the past month?

NÜ: There are many different aspects to this so I will focus on only a few. One is the fact that the resistance is both collective and heterogenous, which has allowed different levels of intensity to coexist. So on the one hand you have the faculty, who are resisting by refusal. They do not cooperate with the appointed rector, they don’t participate in the committees that enable the university to function, and they have developed a ritual of turning their backs to the rector’s building a few minutes every day in their academic garments. It’s a strong display of refusal that is always on the verge of cessation. Will they or won’t they do it again today?

On the other hand, there are the students. They will leave the university in four years and are not paid by it. For the students, BU is important because despite its very real problems, inequalities, and discriminations it is a beacon of heaven compared to the real world. They are defending their current living space and want it to survive for incoming cohorts. But they also know that once they leave they will face a difficult world that makes absolutely no promises to them. It is an authoritarian, repressive, environmentally degraded world that discriminates against all differences. They want more than a refusal. They want to change the world.

I think the most beautiful thing about this resistance is that these two very different groups refuse to be overwhelmed or assimilated by the other, and act together despite a very real and I am sure at times painful tension. Another aspect of the students’ resistance is what my friends and I call the BU style of resistance. It produces a new language, a cheerful atmosphere, based on emotions of courage, anger, despair, and sadness, and it is based on friendship. In that sense, it produces real experience and people want to be part of it. It has no use for tired dichotomies such as Kurd vs. Turk, radical vs. conservative, political vs. academic. It is honest, it rescues words from neoliberal looting and re-enchants them.

J: How has the public responded to these events?  

NÜ: I think the reaction has been very positive. And the state’s response has been very, very harsh. The students in particular found ways to link their struggle to others in Turkey. For example, they deliberately use the word “kayyum” to refer to what happened at BU. It links the appointment of the rector at BU to the replacement of elected mayors in Kurdish cities with appointed government officials, who are called kayyum. In the last couple of years, all the elected mayors from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) have been ousted, imprisoned, and replaced, with only limited protests since there is so much repression against the Kurds. So “kayyum” links these two very different phenomena and shows that government strategies implemented in Kurdistan will come to western Turkey as well if not resisted. And this linking has generated sympathy for the students among Kurds.

Additionally, many religious students participate in the protests and make themselves visible. They stand side by side with LGBTQI+ students who were specifically targeted by the President and the Minister of the Interior. They emphasize that there are many religious people who currently oppose Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). Such activists face hostility from AKP voters as well as from those who equate all religious people with the AKP.

I think the presence of LGBTQI+ activists and women among the protestors is also crucial because these groups understand that everything is political and have developed a language to reveal this. They are very effective when politicians tell them to keep academia and politics separate, or try to delink different oppressions in Turkey.

The very effective use of the position of  “the student” also defines the protests. On Twitter, for example, the protestors tag all known opposition politicians and ask them why they have abandoned the students, and vow never to vote for them if they don’t take sides. They tag lawyers and ask them to come to police stations and courts to defend students and their supporters. As a result, the mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoğlu, and many Republican People’s Party (CHP) politicians felt compelled to make statements on the issue. A BU professor who accepted to be a consultant to the new rector had to decline the position. Apparently, he was a founding member of the newly formed opposition Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA); after a student campaign, DEVA announced that the professor would be dismissed from the party if he continued in his position.

What differentiates the current protests is the fact that students have refused to capitulate to governmental and presidential threats and repression, and don’t shy away. There is this fear in Turkey that all conflict serves the government because President Erdoğan is very skilled at isolating and marginalizing opponents by mobilizing his constituency against them, and thereby consolidates his position. Hence, every time an opposition emerges, it immediately panics and under the rubric of “not being marginalized,” it self-censors and refrains from allying itself with say Kurds or other marked groups in Turkey.

The students didn’t buy this. They aren’t scared of being marginalized. They were careful to speak from their position as students, to remain authentic and credible. But each time the President raised his hand and ordered their arrest, or the interior minister targeted them, or the police terrorized them and so on, they called out those who are responsible on social media and took to the streets. The letter they wrote to Erdoğan after the arrest of four students received the signature of almost 200 organizations and was broadly supported.

J: How do you expect the situation to develop?

NÜ: It is very difficult for BU to sustain this alone. Erdoğan and the government have changed many laws and weaponized them against the opposition, and have deployed paramilitaries and gangsters to threaten their opponents. The opposition parties are incapable of changing the rules of the game. Boğaziçi University needs the civil disobedience it started to be continued, but can only be successful if other oppositional institutions, movements, and organizations join and extend this civil disobedience.


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